Professionalism is a state of mind, and the best workers employ universal habits to get the job done, whether Big Brother is watching or not; whether they're in an office or working at home. Here are some of tried-and-true traits of truly effective telecommuters:
1. They spend time in the office. This first tip will be more of a challenge for employees who work remotely because they live remotely, but still, there are unquantifiable benefits to occasionally working in the office so you can absorb the culture, learn professional expectations and build rapport with your colleagues and supervisor. Does your boss work with a closed door in the late afternoons so she can concentrate? That's a nuance you can't glean unless you're present to witness it, but it's good intelligence that you can take back home and use to adjust how and when you make requests of her.
Coming to the office intermittently can also facilitate proper training. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has one of the most prolific and successful telework programs: 65 percent of its employees work away from the Alexandria, Va., campus between one and five days each week. Danette Campbell, telework senior advisor, reports USPTO staff receive extensive training before they're deployed to work remotely. "We want to ensure the success of our remote workers," she says.
2. They have a workspace. You've envisioned rolling over in bed, booting your laptop and logging onto your work network while rocking your jammies, but that's a down-feathered, slippery and slothful slope, plus it compromises obtaining a professional mindset. Instead, start each work-from-home day the way you would a work-from-the-office day: Get out of bed at a set time, change clothes and "commute" to a designated workspace—a private home office, the dining room table, even a kitchen island. "Many frequent business travelers and other mobile users tend to work in unfamiliar areas all the time, having to turn on the productivity button wherever they are," says Melanie Pinola, a freelance writer and the guide to mobile office technology at About.com. "When you only telecommute occasionally, your strategy may be as simple as creating a portable work station—a laptop, accordion file folder, tray of essential supplies."
3. They have clearly defined goals. Establishing benchmarks is complementary to staying focused on any job, but they're practically mandatory if you want to remain on task remotely. Aimless "Groundhog's Day"-type work isn't conducive to staying plugged in all day, every day.
Stanford University did a study monitoring how working from home affected employees and employers at CTrip, a Chinese travel agency. Volunteers from the company's call center were randomly selected to work from home for nine months, during which there was a 13 percent increase in performance. At-home workers also reported that their job satisfaction improved. According to John Roberts, one of the study's co-authors and the endowed John H. Scully chair and professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the goal-oriented nature of the CTrip employees' work might have boosted their productivity at home. "It's important to remember that the workers were motivated to work," he says. "They were paid more when they got more work done. Of course, they would have been motivated to work when they were in the office, too. ... But [when working at home] they ended up working better and more. It was quieter at home, so they could get more done."
Campbell also notes that some of USPTO's success with telework may be in part because its work is goal-oriented. "The nature of the work lends itself to telework," she says. "Patent examiners and trademark attorneys are productive-driven employees. They know every bi-week how many patents they have to evaluate. We have very clearly defined performance metrics."